Monday, March 31, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob

Now that's a satisfying novel. And a debut one, at that.

Mira Jacob carries her readers into the life and world of Amina Eapen and her family, over twenty or so years, from early days in India to the US in the 1980's and 90's. Amina heads home to New Mexico, from her world as a photographer in Seattle, when her mother calls, concerned about the erratic behavior of her father, a prominent neurosurgeon. What those two sentences don't capture is the lush richness of character that Jacobs presents her readers, to tease the palate, and satisfy the appetite. As the story progresses, both retrospectively and in the modern day, each scene, each character, is laced with with depth and detail that make these seem like situations and people you might encounter in your own world: stubborn, idiosyncratic, loving, funny, quirky -- real (but real people you wouldn't mind knowing, and definitely wouldn't mind having a meal with, if Kamala, Raj, or Jamie were doing the cooking.) One of the things I enjoyed most was the role food and flavors played in this novel.

This is a novel of mind and memory, and how the two can interact at different times of our lives. It also is a novel of heart, hope, and ultimately, healing, as we move forward with the bumps and upheavals of life. This book supposedly took Ms Jacob 10 years to complete. I hope we don't have to wait that long for another chance to dip into the rich vibrancy of her world.

Thank you to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program and Random House for this book. It is available for sale 1 July, 2014.

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

I think this may be one of my favorite memoirs I've read in a long time. If you're looking for recent stuff, such as being nominated and then appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court, you won't find that in this book. What you will find is a candid, forthright description of Justice Sotomayor's earlier life: growing up as a girl of Puerto Rican heritage, in a low income, but hard working family, overcoming economic odds, health threats (Juvenile Diabetes in that time had far worse outcomes), school and university experiences, and life in her early days as a lawyer and wife. It was fascinating, particularly those early days. Justice Sotomayor's description of her interview at Radcliffe was especially great, enough so that I read it to my husband. Essentially, she'd never encountered anyone in a little black dress and pearls giving an interview before, had never seen an oriental carpet, nor a white couch (as was in the interviewer's office) let alone a couch without plastic on it. Then these two little lap dogs came barreling down on her, barking furiously, and she knew Radcliffe was not a fit for her. (Later, my husband and I ran into a pair of lapdogs yapping at us, and christened them "Radcliffe rats".) I was impressed with Justice Sotomayor before reading this book, but after doing so, really do admire her for what she has done with her life, and for holding true to her principles and the law of the US.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Star for Mrs Blake, by April Smith

In the years after The Great War, before the causes World War II had fully reared their ugly heads, and were just snuffling around claiming ground, mothers of fallen US soldiers joined together to support and comfort each other, but to also provide care to wounded soldiers far from their families. The American Gold Star Mothers, so named from the gold stars hung in their windows to indicate a deceased veteran, still exists today. A Star for Mrs Blake takes place in the infancy of this organization, during an ambitious program of the US government to sponsor a pilgrimage offering mothers of soldiers who died in WWI the chance to visit the graves of their children in Europe. Inspired by the diary of Colonel Thomas West Hammond, whose first assignment out of West Point was to escort the Gold Star Mothers on their journey, this books centers on Cora Blake, a mother from Maine, who lost her only child, Sammy, in the final days of the war.

Though the first half of the book moved a bit slowly for me, the pace did quicken as the mothers got closer to Europe. The personalities and backgrounds of the women featured in the book did seem to cover various walks of life, allowing glimpses into the worlds of different slices of society during the Depression. There were also some memorable characters introduced in Paris, notably Griffin Reed, an expatriate American journalist and Florence Dean Powell (based loosely on Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculptor, fascinating in her own right, one of the artists who designed lifelike masks for gravely wounded soldiers.) While the book itself was a nice enough read, it was the pages of history it lead me to explore that really have enriched my life. Thank you April Smith, for again bringing these subjects to my attention so that I could delve more deeply, and thank you to and Random House for sending a copy of the book my way. I am grateful, and grateful to the men and women who honor our country by serving in the armed forces.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I read this delicious book just before we moved. In fact, I think it was the last book I read in the old house, and I was just too dang busy to do a proper review. Now, of course, it's a month after I finished it, and though the book has stayed with me, many of the details have fled. I do remember thinking that I loved some of the details the author included -- the cost of something on a advertisement/sign painted on a building, etc. Those made things more realistic, tangible, for me. I liked the two stories, present and past, and liked that though they were related, there was no denouement where the two characters were blood relations or something. What a great feeling to read a book you like, and to learn something from it as well. In this case, I learned a lot about the Orphan Trains, which were an amazing piece of US history -- well intended, and in some cases, ending happily, but in others, opening up worlds of heartbreak.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Loved this book so much that I downloaded the kindle app for my phone to read it, since I couldn't get a hard copy in my hot little hands -- and I seriously despise going to the dark side with e-books.  My big thing, though, was I wanted more backstory on Simon and Baz! (Will do a proper review at some point, but go read the book. You won't regret it.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

My father was a pathologist, with an interest in oncology. He was a pioneer in the work towards a cure for leukemia, and his quest took him on many unique journeys, both scientific and literal travels. He had this idea that you could inject an isotope into an infected guinea pig, and be able to read the path of the disease in the animal's body. He worked for the National Institutes of Health, and it was his resources there that allowed him to drive the family station wagon out to this place in Tennessee, and pick up a substance to help in the refining of his idea. Whatever it was that he picked up, was in a lead-lined box, and we kids weren't allowed near the box, or the car, when he got home. I remember him washing the car, inside and out, to "make it safe" for the family to ride in again. (I remember, because it was the only time I saw him ever wash the car. It was something relegated to his sons and daughter to do.) Daddy took the box to his lab and went on with his experiments. His career was illustrious, and his work brought him a nomination for the Nobel prize (he found out after the fact) and was the basis for other people to win the prize itself (which was a sore point for him.) The empty box hung around the lab, then came to our home where it was used as a door stop for years. The base has been lost, but we actually still have the lid, and some weights used to help keep the top secure on the car ride between Tennessee and Maryland. (My husband says that early exposure to radioactive material explains a lot about my family. I just glare at him.)

Maybe it was my childhood awareness of Oak Ridge, maybe it was my love of history, but I had put this book on my reading list. A friend sent it on to me (thank you Nancy!) when she saw I was interested in it. Such a fascinating collection of people, in a fascinating time and place. All were very ordinary, and very extraordinary at the same time. The secrecy surrounding the project, some of the rules and regulations, and the level of detail thought through in some areas (while totally ignored in others, such as what to do with the mud at the site, to allow people to get about) was fascinating. It did take me a little bit to keep the various people and their story lines straight (for though this is non-fiction, there are times when it really doesn't read as such.)

I found this a thoughtful and though-provoking look at history, and the women, from janitor to scientist, who helped build the atomic bomb. They did, indeed, change the world.