Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dear Books of 2011 (Part II of II)

Dear Books of 2011 (Part II of II),

Halfway through 2011, I decided that my goal would be to digest (metaphor intended, again) 12 of you.  It seemed like an achievable goal, roughly a book a month.  Part I of II mini book reviews are here.  The second half of the year was much tougher, however, as this blog was born midway through the year.  And if it weren't for the fact that we are on vacation now (the Happiest-Place-on-Earth kind, not the relaxing-and-rejuvenating kind), I would be done with book #12.  But who's counting?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The author of The Kite Runner, Hosseini delivers another beautifully written Afghan tale to us. This is the story of two unrelated women brought together by fate, war, and humanity.  At first separately, the two women's lives are told and later intertwined.  In a culture where women are possessions like commodities, Mariam is sold to her husband twice her age, and she lives a miserable life with him, until he finds a much younger girl, Laila, who was orphaned by the war, and takes her in and marries her.  Although these two women understandably dislike one another at first, they eventually find solace in each other and form a bond so strong that they are able to support each other and live for themselves in a male dominated society.  This book brought tears to my eyes on many occasions, and made me feel so incredibly fortunate to be born into a time and culture where women are an integral part of society.  The title of the book comes from the poem, "Kabul," by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi: Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye/ Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass/ One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.  And the novel is every bit as poignant as this excerpt of the poem.  (Reading this book was like eating an unfamiliar ethnic food: although the taste is foreign, the food itself is so fundamental that it not only satiates primal hunger, but also provides the added experience of an exotic new flavor.  4 out of 4 stars).

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
In this very well-researched non-fiction historical book, Larson tells the story of Hitler's Nazi Germany through the experiences of U.S. ambassador, William Dodd, and his promiscuous daughter, Martha.  Dodd and his family move to Germany in 1933, just as Hitler rises to power.  Dodd stands out as a misfit; he is a frugal scholar, as opposed to his peers, who thrive on lavish parties and pretentious conversations.  Martha, on the other hand, quickly falls in love for this new culture as well as many men who represent it.  Both Dodd and Martha eventually find out the horror to which Germany is headed as they first experience The Night of the Long Knives, a night of terror where over a hundred people were murdered, as well as more subsequent tragedies.  I had originally decided to read this book to learn more about that time in history, and because this book is supposed to read like a political thriller.  However, I felt like I kept waiting for something to happen, like a rise and fall of the plot.  Perhaps I am partial to the fiction genre.  That, or there really was no climax in this book.  Nevertheless, credit is given to the author for his extensive research and depth of truth depicted in the book.  (Reading this book was like drinking a highly rated red wine, only to be somewhat disappointed by the complexity of the flavors, yet still enjoying it more than I would a younger, less full-bodied wine.  3 out of 4 stars). 

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson
Named on several lists of "must-read summer thrillers," I was intrigued by its premise.  Christine wakes up everyday not remembering anything: who she is, where she is, and how old she is.  This type of amnesia erases all memory while the patient falls asleep.  A doctor contacts her and encourages her to keep a journal to help her remember the past.  One day, she comes across her own writing that tells her not to trust her husband, next to whom she wakes up everyday.  This novel was indeed a page turner, albeit repetitive at times.  The author does get inside the head of a female amnesiac with incredible believability, and tells the story with a propelling drive all the way to the end.  Although not completely logical or perfect, the book served its purpose as a quick summer read, and I enjoyed it just expecting that. (Reading this book was like visiting your favorite fast food drive-through: fast, good, though not too memorable.  2.5 out of 4 stars). 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzan
I have never in my life both loved and hated a book at the same time as I have this one.  This was the book that took me forever to read, putting it down to finish several others before finishing it.  If Verghese of Cutting for Stone is a storyteller, then Franzen is a writer's writer.  He writes so damn well that every single word he uses is meant to be and has a purpose.  Readers know exactly how each character thinks as well as how each character feels for one another, down to the tiniest detail.  Walter and Patty Berglund met in college, married, and settled down in suburbia to have a family.  Richard, Walter's college roommate, has an interesting relationship with the Berglunds, one with which the readers knows exactly how these three people relate to each other.  As their kids get older, Walter and Patty lose sight of each other, and in this sweeping tale of current American social issues, from environmentalism to capitalism, love and betrayal, rock-n-roll music and politics, character and integrity, we learn how they come to grips with the choices they make in life.  This book is about the characters; we know them so well that they almost seem real.  But I was never able to sympathize with any of them; and therein lies the problem for me in getting through the book.  And the bit about the cerulean warblers got a little too long. Too preachy, even.  So while I very much admired Franzen's writing, I didn't really like the story or the characters.  And I know Franzen is making a statement about our society with his characters, but it is so bleak that I just could not enjoy it. (Reading this book was like having a delicate dish like Chilean sea bass, only to have it plated with a heavy cream sauce; the odd combination makes it difficult to love.  3 out of 4 stars).

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Written by a surgeon, this non-fiction book is an excellent read for medical professionals as well as the people they treat.  Gawande discusses medicine, and specifically surgery, as a constantly changing body of knowledge used by doctors, who are human themselves, to treat their patients.  His deferential style, compassionate tone, astute observations, and thoughtful debates make this book 'my cuppa tea'.  The book is written in three parts.  Part I is about the fallibility of doctors: how residents learn from teaching hospitals; how specialization in an area decreases mistakes in the case of hernia surgery; when doctors make mistakes and what can be learned from them; and what happens when good doctors go bad.  Part II is is titled Mystery, where he discusses a few very interesting medical issues: the inconsistency and origins of pain; the medical explanations (or lack thereof) for nausea (and extreme cases of pregnancy-related nausea); the medical symptom of "hyper"-blushing, its physiological effects, and a medically debated surgical cure; and the medical explanations of over-eating, obesity, and gastric bypass surgery.  Finally, Part III is about uncertainty in the medical field: the rare yet life-or-death determining cut in certain surgeries; questions involving Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; the debate over autopsies; and the author's diagnosis of a rare flesh-eating bacteria in a woman's leg that ultimately saved her life even though she had to lose a leg.  This book delves deep into how the imperfections of medicine is instrumental in making it a better practice.  (Reading this book was like eating a box of assorted fine chocolates: each type distinct, equally important, and necessary to make the box a superior assortment.  4 out of 4 stars).

Although you are missing one friend to make a nice dozen books read in 2011, I will soon finish my next, when our lives return to home and normalcy.  But it has been nice to close out this spectacular year with a reminder of accomplishing much reading a writing.  C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to know that we are not alone."  I know I am surrounded by shared experiences, and I thank you for your readership.



  1. Oh I read the other one by Erik Larsen... but I can't remember the name - the one set in Chicago during the World's Fair. It was recommended to me by a friend and I'm with you. I kept waiting and waiting for... something. In fact, I had this one on hold at the library and decided not to read it after finishing the other one ;)

    Hope you had a great vacation!

  2. Re: Freedom, I heard a similar description of Wuthering Heights recently. I think good writing is harder to come by than cloyingly likeable characters, so I think will endeavor both.

    Michelle, Devil in the White City. I liked it, but maybe only because I know all of the streets.

  3. Michelle, We went to Disney World on the busiest week of the year. It was fun, but we won't do it on that week ever again! About the book, I did learn a lot about that period of history, so at least that aspect was good!

    Elaine, You are right about good writing being harder to come by than likeable characters. It was just really hard for me to relate to ANY of those characters, even in the tiniest bit. A story is more meaningful if there are some shared experiences between the characters and the reader, I think. But again, his writing is superb. You'll have to tell me what you think if you do read it!